When aquariums become advocates


As part of its efforts to raise awareness about plastic pollution and inspire people to stop using single-use plastics, the European Commission is coordinating a global coalition of aquariums.

Through his work, Belgian marine biologist Gilles Doignon has seen how everyday objects end up as marine litter that will not decompose for many years. Almost half of all marine litter polluting our oceans is made up of just 10 types of single-use plastic items, including food containers, beverage cups and bottles, cotton buds, cutlery wrappers, cigarette butts, sanitary products, and carrier bags. Several of these will now effectively be banned under new EU rules, while others will be restricted in various ways.

All of us – institutions, aquariums, citizens – are facing the same problem and we can all do something to fight plastic pollution so let's join forces!

Gilles Doignon, marine biologist and social media manager with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment

Now an EU official tasked with communicating the problem, Doignon remembered how impressed he had been by aquariums as a child. That memory sparked an idea: to create a network centred on aquariums to help raise awareness of plastic pollution among the general public. “Aquariums are windows to our oceans. They are a great way to show what marine diversity is, but also what we need to protect,” he says.

Via Twitter, he reached out to aquariums across Europe, proposing that they educate their visitors about the issue. The Galway aquarium in Ireland was the first to join the project, followed closely by the Malta aquarium. Just two years later, Doignon’s idea has mushroomed into a giant coalition of 182 aquariums in 41 countries, 116 of which are in the EU.

The action now reaches millions on a global scale. "We are delighted our call motivated so many institutions, from very local to iconic ones such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, Nausicaá in France, Oceanário in Portugal and Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. All aquariums with conservation and education programmes are welcome!"

The coalition, coordinated by the European Commission, unites aquariums with institutions such as Monaco’s Oceanographic Institute, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO and international aquariums organisations. All coalition partners promote the ‘#ReadyToChange to #BeatPlasticPollution’ motto, based on EU and UN campaigns, using exhibitions, social media and other influencers.

“The coalition sends out the message that we are stronger together,” says Doignon. “All of us – institutions, aquariums, citizens – are facing the same problem and we can all do something to fight plastic pollution so let's join forces.”

Education and inspiration

The Commission hopes the millions visiting aquariums every year will realise how much plastic damages sea life, and will be inspired to act. “For marine life, plastic is catastrophic. Straws are eaten and injure turtles, bags suffocate whales. In the North Sea, 90 % of birds have plastic in their stomach. Juvenile fish and even unicellulars ingest microplastics that can kill them,” he explains.

“As a consumer, each action you take can make a difference. There is fundamental need for a shift in our behaviour: do I really need this straw or plastic lid on my takeaway coffee? Each time you drink from the tap instead of buying bottled water means one bottle less. Alternatives exist, but the main challenge is getting rid of the throwaway mentality.”

Coalition members use different methods to educate their visitors. Some have exhibited tanks full of rubbish to portray a polluted sea. One Slovenian aquarium created a wave sculpture using hundreds of plastic bottles. Another, in Spain, has created an awareness video, featuring a mermaid. A French aquarium is working with fishermen and a private company to recycle the plastic they catch in their nets. Local celebrities are supporting these actions, too.

The aquariums have also been invited to lead by example by changing their procurement policies to eliminate single-use plastics from their canteens and shops.

“At the fifth 'Our Ocean' conference in Bali last October, the Commission committed to expanding the coalition to 200 aquariums. We are almost there and can go even further. On 1 November 2019, UNEP will take over the project to expand its global reach. Since the EU is ready to ban single-use plastic items by 2021, we hope UNEP will spread our example and inspire other countries to introduce their own legislation,” concludes Doignon.

Water, marine and coast